Unlike actors, when puppets talk about fairy tales they sound true, writes Mark Fisher
AT THIS special time of year, we should spare a thought for the puppeteers. Not for them the luxury afforded ordinary theatre companies. They have no classics, no tried-and-tested hits, no fall-back position. They can only look on with envy as other theatremakers reach for the bookshelf and choose from 2,500 years’ worth of plays.
When they put on a puppet show, they’ve got to create the whole thing from scratch.
“There isn’t a repertoire for adult puppetry in the UK,” says Mark Down, artistic director of Blind Summit Theatre, specialist in “extreme” puppetry. “I have these fantasies of an Agatha Christie play with puppets or Noel Coward with a puppet servant in tails. There is no safe seller, so you’re always on a massive 100 per cent risk each time you put one on.”
This helps explain why it has been four years since Down’s company wowed the Fringe with The Table. The very funny Fringe First-winning hit featured a two-foot high man called Moses, who had spent 40 years on a table top. With cloth body and angular cardboard head operated by three puppeteers, Moses had reached a point of existentialist despair. Making the unlikely connection between Beckett and bunraku, he turned loneliness into comedy.
The Table won prizes in Poland and Spain and did a lap of honour in Edinburgh in 2013. But returning to the rehearsal room after dazzling audiences in Europe, China and the US, the company was back to square one. What would they do next?
First they had a look at plays by bunraku master Chikamatsu Monzaemon. They were all about love, battle and suicide, and lasted anything up to a day. That was a struggle, so they toyed with Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues. Now the puppets seemed less interesting when they performed the script than when they were improvising in character. So they dug out Ben Johnson’s Jacobean comedy Volpone, but again, there were just too many words.
Resigned, they accepted, once more, that they’d have to make the whole thing themselves. “You have to do what the puppets insist you do,” says Down, like a man possessed.
To make a break from the style of The Table, they decided to build a puppet with a moving mouth and to have the actors wear masks and gloves. A total of ten puppets followed.
Out of that emerged the sideways idea of telling a classic fairy story – in this case Jack and the Beanstalk – as a cross between police procedural and verbatim drama. It would open in the aftermath of a crime – the fallen beanstalk, the damaged houses – and would piece together the events from there.
“I’ve been fairly allergic to fairy tales because of the obvious children’s puppetry connections,” says Down. “But we realised that when puppets talked about fairy tales it sounded true, whereas if they talked about Wiltshire it sounded absurd.”
Taking inspiration from the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and early 1990s Fringe shows by the Grassmarket Project in which ordinary people acted out their own stories, they created faux real-life dialogue as if transcribed from actual conversations. In truth, it came from recordings of puppet improvisations.
“Verbatim theatre itself is quite manipulative,” he says. “By taking people’s words and using them to tell a story, they sort of become puppets. That’s been a very interesting happy accident.”
He adds: “I remember seeing the Grassmarket Project shows Mad and Bad and loving the sheer power of it, which is the power of playing with truth. Black Watch is the same; it’s an immensely powerful game that it’s playing. What we discovered is that you can’t quite believe that a puppet is lying to you, unlike an actor who can say one thing and mean another. But what you can believe is that a puppet is saying one thing and also saying something about theatre. You believe a puppet is real when it’s at its most theatrical. So doing verbatim, suddenly the puppet seems really real.”
The result is Citizen Puppet, a “true crime puppet docu-drama” taking place in the seedy world of gambling, greed, theft and murder where the beanstalk has come down. That may sound whimsical, but it’s also about such thorny contemporary topics as the banking system, immigration, tax avoidance and austerity.
“Politics always underpins our work, but it’s not always overt,” says Down, who was responsible for the 18m firework-firing Voldemort in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
“Politics led to the idea of citizenship which I feel is a crisis of our times. The townsfolk realise that when the beanstalk comes down so does the value of everything – it was a financial bubble.”
Those who laughed their way through The Table shouldn’t worry that Blind Summit is about to get all heavy on us, however. “Puppets can say some really unpleasant jokes,” laughs Down. “It’s sort of expected that they’ll say some shocking things.”
Citizen Puppet, Pleasance Courtyard, until 30 August, 5pm / listings
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